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Dragon Soul Difficulty

Posted by Malevica on December - 7 - 2011

The current hot topic amongst the raiding blogo- and twitterspheres is the question of the tuning of the new Dragon Soul raid instance: far too easy and not enough to keep us going for potential 8 months? Tuned about right, when you consider it as a difficulty curve and realise that Firelands was rather flat compared to a strong curve in Dragon Soul. I also commented that I thought the raid was undertuned, but I think I may have been a little hasty in that assessment.

Some Data

<Abraxas> cleared Dragon Soul on Normal this week, taking a total of 20 pulls for the first 6 bosses and then 33 pulls on the last two together, although quite a few of those were on the Spine where we were 9-manning for practice because we had too many people LD that evening. For a better sample (albeit still small), I’ve taken the top 5 guilds on my server and averaged their pulls to kill for each boss for which data were available; it’s not very scientific, but it’s interesting:

First Week Pulls to Kill for Normal Dragon Soul 10-man

First Week Pulls to Kill for Normal Dragon Soul 10-man - Data gathered from World of Logs for the top 5 guilds on Dath'Remar-US

Caution is due here because there may have been server issues affecting guilds on later bosses, or experimentation with tactics, or less information available from the PTR, but this does suggest that there was a pretty strong increase in the difficulty throughout the raid, for whatever reason, lining up with what Rohan observed over at Blessing of Kings.

For additional data, we turn to WoL again, tracking the kills-to-total-pulls ratios for the bosses, again on 10-man normal for comparison:

Success Percentage (Kills/Wipes) for Normal Dragon Soul 10-man - Data from World of Logs for all uploaded reports

Madness of Deathwing has no kill detection so it doesn’t appear, and Spine seemed to have dodgy kill detection earlier in the week so take that figure with a pinch of salt.

With the exception of Zon’ozz who seems to be causing raids a great deal of difficulty, once again you can see a curve there. Morchok is a pushover, but then there’s a good ramping up of difficulty between Yorsahj, Hagara and Ultraxion.

Both of these data sources point to a strongly-graded difficulty curve. Compare that to Firelands:

Success Percentage (Kills/Wipes) for Normal Firelands 10-man - Data from World of Logs for all uploaded reports

Again, a note of caution. Dragon Soul is a snapshot of week 1, whereas the Firelands graph includes the effects of nerfs which I’d expect to have flattened the curve somewhat, but again it’s suggestive of a difference.

So Is Dragon Soul Actually Too Easy?

Initially I thought it was. We’re a very strong but not elite guild and we’ve cleared 8/8 bosses in the first week. And we’re far from alone: on Dath’Remar, hardly a hotbed of hardcore raiding, 7 guilds went 8/8 in Week 1, and a further 8 are 7/8.

However, the situation we’re in is atypical. Guilds like ours, high-ranked but not the cutting edge, benefited from the Firelands nerfs to gain a gear advantage that wouldn’t have been available to us in previous tiers, so Dragon Soul normal probably should feel easy to us. It’s meant to be done in ilvl378 gear, not ~ilvl388 like many of us have, and it absolutely has to be designed that way. By the time we came to the Madness of Deathwing we were very close to the Cataclysm and Berserk timers on several occasions, so a starting position closer to ilvl378 should indeed mean a few weeks of farming would be needed to meet the checks of the later encounters.

In short, I think all is as it should be with the raid, the trouble is more a consequence of the previous tier, and perhaps premature reactions to first nights from surprised raiders like myself incorrectly assuming the whole place is at the same level.

The trouble though, with guilds like us being in this position, is that we’ve lost something important in the raid lifecycle: the “inevitable kill” phase.

Working through normal modes, for a guild like us, is supposed to be something that takes a bit of time while we learn the fight, but which we always know we’re intended to kill. It’s a good feeling, it’s reassuring, and the successes help to lift our spirits and build some momentum. Now, instead, what we have to look forward to are heroic modes which are a far from a certain prospect. We didn’t kill heroic Ragnaros; most of us didn’t make much progress in heroic Tier 11 let alone kill Sinestra; heroic Lich King (even with the 30% buff) evaded many. So every kill from now until MoP is likely to be a long, hard grind, and some kills we may not even get.

You’ll forgive me for feeling a little cheated.

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Categories: Featured, Opinion

Heroic Firelands

Posted by Malevica on October - 8 - 2011

Assuming you’ve not been living under a rock, you’ll be aware that just under three weeks ago the Firelands was hit with some pretty chunky nerfs, with 15% and 25% decreases in damage and health combined with reductions in the danger of some of the trickier mechanics (Alysrazor’s Tornadoes, for example).

My Context

How you feel about the nerfs is going to depend very strongly on your situation, so before I go and give my opinion I’ll explain where I’m coming from.

My guild had been pushing pretty hard, since forming up at the beginning of September, to work our way through the content and we were starting on Ragnaros when the announcement was made that we’d have a final week to down him “properly” before the nerfs arrived. We duly took him down on the Sunday night, and I have to tell you it was a big relief to all of us. You could feel the pressure on the raid to get it done and get it done quickly, before it wouldn’t feel like something to be proud of any more.

In the 8 raid nights we’ve had since the nerfs we’ve gone from 0/7 to 6/7 heroic bosses killed. Majordomo took a meagre 5 attempts, Baleroc took two. The rest took around a dozen pulls each to get down. Whew!

Now, and this is important, let me not take anything away from the team here. I’m not saying this isn’t an achievement to be proud of, because these fights aren’t (generally) a walkover and there have been some strong performances, some extremely quick learning, and good teamwork on show. And there are plenty of teams that haven’t progressed this much even post-nerf, we’ve leap-frogged several on our server. So I’ll say a huge congratulations to everyone involved.

However…

My Sense of Achievement

When I’ve thought in the past about what makes a kill worthwhile for me, and therefore what makes me really value my achievements while raiding, I always put it down to the feeling of progressively learning to overcome a challenge, where that learning might be personal or collective.
For example, maybe I learned how to squeeze out a bit more healing to get the raid through a healing-intense period, or the healing team nailed our cooldown usage, or the raid’s positioning was spot on and no one got hit by the bad, or perhaps we finally beat that pesky enrage timer. Whatever the trick might have been, we started off not able to beat the boss, and ended up in triumph.

That could obviously account for being underwhelmed by heroic Baleroc who was more or less a push-over, but we spent a dozen or more attempts downing Shannox, Beth’tilac and Alysrazor and there was undoubtedly some progression involved there. So there must be something else that contributes to my sense of achievement that’s not been stimulated by the more recent boss kills.

Well, I’ve done some thinking, and I’ve come up with two prime candidates:

My Elitism

I’ll say it, I’m an elitist. I’ll also explain what I mean by that: I’m okay with the idea of content that’s graded and graded such that most people won’t see everything (myself included). People find their level and raid the content that works for them.

Myself, I want to be able to look at my raid achievements pane, or my titles, or WoWProgress and compare myself (or my guild) to others. I’ll be honest and say that I enjoy seeing which progression percentile I’m in, and how many people haven’t managed to see and do what I’ve seen and done. It makes me feel good, and I doubt I’m alone in that.

That “elitism” is a strong driver for me to put the time and effort into raiding, both inside and outside the game, even when it’s hard work. But when I look at WoWProgress and see an extremely flat field, with 10 guilds currently at 6/7 heroic and probably more to join us shortly, that ability to rank myself is diminished and with it some of my sense of accomplishment. By contrast, before the nerfs the half-dozen or so guilds raiding heroic content were pretty well spread out between 1/7 and 6/7.

We have been jumping up the rankings this last fortnight as we took down bosses so I have enjoyed a little of that feeling, but very quickly we’ve found ourselves just one of the pack again.

Which leads me on to the other factor:

My Pacing

This is the big one, I think: time.

I’m talking about the time it takes to down a new boss. It’s so quick that there’s just no real need for the poring over of logs or the researching of strategies or the discussion on guild forums. And I enjoy all that stuff!

I’m also talking about the time it takes us to acquire new gear and progress our characters. Like it or not WoW is a loot- and gear-centred game, but the speed at which we’ve taken down new bosses means we’ve had no sense of that progression. Whatever gear we started heroics with would probably have been enough, it’s just about getting the hang of the execution.
What I realise is that I actually enjoy seeing bosses get noticeably easier as we gear up, but I find that that once a boss is sufficiently easy to defeat the gear ceases to make much of a difference to the challenge, and so that point of reference is lost to me.

And I’m talking about the time we get to actually enjoy a new kill. It’s nice to get a new boss down and then enjoy basking in that feeling for a few days. Getting another new boss down an hour later has robbed me of the pleasure of savouring the first kill for more than that hour.

And finally I’m talking about the simple fact that time translates to effort, and that the more effort we put into something, the better we feel when it’s successfully completed. Simple, but true nonetheless.

My Conclusion

As I said right at the start, this is all a matter of perspective. I’m an individual, with a particular set of values and motivations. I’m also in a particular guild with a particular average skill level and particular progression.

For me in the position I’m in now, the nerfs sucked. Having worked our way through the not-especially-challenging normal-mode bosses, we were just about to deal with Ragnaros so we could start really testing our mettle against the heroic modes. What actually happened was that those promised heroic modes provided little challenge, so instead of a series of challenges we’re effectively left with just one, heroic Ragnaros. Maybe this is how Paragon feel every patch?

On the other hand, there is now a good spread of guilds between 5/7 heroic and 7/7 normal, so for those guilds the nerfs might well have been pretty sweet. And amongst the teams who were struggling with some of the normal modes, there might well be some happy faces there too as they can move beyond the two or three bosses and see some new content. I don’t know though, I’m not them.

Perhaps the Raid Finder will solve this problem. Move the “everyone should get to see the end boss, at least in some form” into the LFR mode, and you effectively have a third difficulty level to play with: Heroics for the Royalty and Aristocracy to complete or work through respectively, normals for the Gentry and Bourgeoisie to complete or work through respectively, and LFR for those without the time, skills or structure (and I’m not saying those are linked in any way) to handle the medium difficulty level. And alts. Lots of alts.

Or, and this is far more likely, it’ll just mean the problematic cases are moved to somewhere else on the spectrum, and they can moan about the state of the raiding game instead!

Also, I’ve been watching way too much Scrubs ;-)

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Categories: Opinion

What Makes Healing Hard?

Posted by Malevica on March - 9 - 2010

A hot topic lately is the level of challenge in the game. In this post I will look at the factors that add challenge to healing, and ask if healing is challenging enough, and where the future lies for stretching healers as Cataclysm information trickles out.

Game Mechanics

The designers of classes and encounters have several different aspects of healing to work with to set the difficulty. Those this post will deal with specifically are: spell availability, reaction time, the need for triage, mana management and coordination.

Spell Availability

Consider a “standard” 25-man healing team of 6 people. You might aim to include one or two paladins, a disc priest and then at least one each of the other specs, ideally no more than two of each. This allows you to have a baseline level of cover for sustained tank damage, increase the general raid survivability, and then have a full range of spells to use against the various extra types of damage thrown out in the encounter, from raid-wide auras to targeted flame patches and everything in between.

Depending on your guild you may or may not choose adapt the healing team to the encounter; it seems sensible if you’re interested in min/maxing, although these days for most raid groups this isn’t necessary as long as your composition isn’t too pathological. I have happy memories of 2-healing Ulduar as a Disc Priest alongside a Holy Paladin, and adapting just fine.

Blizzard’s stated design is for most encounters to be accessible for a most healing teams, and they succeed to a large extent, but in my experience this is one thing that can dramatically increase the relative difficulty of 10-man compared to 25-man raiding. In the previously-mentioned Disc + Holy Paladin example we lacked the tools to handle raid-wide damage fights effectively, Kologarn being a good example. We managed, but a Holy Priest or Resto Druid would have laughed that off.

In a 5-man this problem is even more acute since the only spells available are those you bring with you. The contrast between Forgemaster Garfrost as a Holy Paladin and as a Resto Druid is quite simply day and night. The contrast of course reverses once the group moves beyond Ick and suddenly the tank is taking insane damage and I wish I had my spammable Holy Light back.

Has this philosophy of allowing a broader range of compositions to succeed detracted from the difficulty? I’d argue that it probably has not. What has changed is that the more extreme damage profiles which strongly favoured stacking one class or another have gone away, and classes have been strategically nerfed to remove over-reliance on single spells (CoH being the prime example).

I would not like to see a total removal of unusual damage profiles, because drawing healers outside their comfort zones is a huge positive. However the playerbase tends to react to this by insisting that Blizzard has “forced” some sort of odd composition upon them. This can be avoided to an extent by varying the healing requirements throughout the fight, much as Festergut does well in Icecrown.

Reaction Time

Unlike the spells, which are largely fixed as a function of the healers you have available, reaction time is a property of the individual healer. Healers are often called upon to respond to things like spike damage debuffs (Frost Blast, Penetrating Cold), Tank killers requiring cooldowns (Plasma Blast, Flame Breath), or to cover for each other (healers being taken by a Val’kyr, or just about anything on Sindragosa). Reaction time demands can be adjusted by designers to increase the difficulty of an encounter.

The reaction time of a given healer depends on a number of factors. First there’s their client-server latency; then once their client has the information there’s another delay while their UI digests that information and presents it to them; next comes the human response time while they notice the event, decide on an action and execute it; finally there is a second client-server latency while the server notices the action the player chose to take.

Having played on the Oceanic servers I can understand the impact of latency. My guild at the time was working through Karazhan but simply could not defeat Maiden because both of our main healers were running with ~1k ping and could not react to the Holy Fire in time.

As a raid leader or healing lead it is crucial to understand the reaction times of your healers when assigning them roles. Tank healers can often get away with worse latency than raid healers since the rotation and reactions are less demanding, although the players at the top of your external cooldown rotation should be those with quicker reactions.

My view is that this can be a great way to stretch your healers, as long as it is used relatively sparingly. I enjoy being called on to pay attention and it is a good way to distinguish myself as someone with
higher awareness. However obviously the game designers need to allow for a wide range of connections and not unduly penalise those with fairly high latency.

Triage and Throughput

Triage is the art of prioritising limited resources according to greatest need. This becomes relevant when throughput is inadequate to cover everyone, and there is a need for quick decision-making, as opposed to just quickly executing a pre-defined action.

Triage is definitely more of an art than a science: in practice the best triage healers draw on their experience of the damage profile of the fight, the individuals taking damage, and the habits of their fellow healers when making their decisions, reacting almost instinctively.

In Wrath triage has fallen by the wayside in many cases, a fact which has been acknowledged recently by Ghostcrawler when commenting that generally people are not left at low health for extended periods of time. This is as a result of large hits and large heals becoming commonplace, creating a situation where allowing people to be left to be healed to full over the duration of a mana-efficient HoT is a dangerous business.

Generally Wrath felt like it scaled too far: healing output and tank avoidance/mitigation scaled overly high, so boss damage was scaled to compensate, to the point where everyone ended up in real danger of being 2-shotted. I expect lessons have been learned though.

I’m extremely excited by the proposed changes for Cataclysm which will alter the ratio of heals to health pools. When the throughput the healing team is capable of doesn’t overwhelm the incoming damage by so much, the question of where that scarce healing is spent becomes much more important. Currently a 25-man Decimate can be recovered from fully in a couple of seconds with AoE heals, rather than having to prioritise the lowest members until you can get around to the rest. Contrast this to Naj’entus in the Black Temple, where it was a huge challenge to keep as many people as possible above 50% before the next bubble needed to be burst.

I’m looking forward to more orange health bars in Cataclysm. This is a valuable tool to increase the challenge of healing which should get more use.

Mana

In conjunction with the throughput-mandated triage described above, there is also mana-mandated triage: can you afford to use that AoE heal or should you heal only those people under 50%? Can they survive long enough for a HoT to be used instead?

When working through the more difficult heroics in my quest blues back in November 2008 I had significant mana issues. I just couldn’t heal the way I had been healing in TBC, so I had to be very careful with who and how I healed. Sometime during the Tier 7 content, and certainly by the time I was raiding Ulduar, I had all but lost the ability to go OOM unless I really worked at it. Clearly it is still possible to burn through an entire mana pool, but under normal conditions there is no compelling reason not to always be casting and to select efficiency over throughput.

Throughput requirements are inextricably linked to mana management: if healers go through phases with lower damage then efficient but slower heals regain their value, while in high-damage scenarios the pressure to use the quick, expensive heals overrides other concerns.
And when throughput or mana are at a premium there is also pressure to reduce overhealing to a bare minimum, another test of healer skill and coordination.

The trouble is that mana management is a difficult balance for class and encounter designers. Spell costs remain fixed over time, while regeneration from gear can more than double as an expansion progresses. Retaining the ability to run out of mana in Icecrown while not making Naxx unmanageable would be all but impossible without also changing the character of healing as the expansion progresses as well, requiring the more mana-profligate style that the acquired gear allows.

The challenge for the designers of future raids and for the class designers come Cataclysm then is to rein in mana regeneration or increase spell costs, and to better differentiate the efficient heals from the inefficient so there is a real choice to be made.

A lot has been posted on forums and blogs about whether mana management is “fun” or not. Personally I would state categorically that yes, it is fun. A mechanic which presents you with a decision to make adds to the interest of playing a healer. These sorts of decisions test your ability to appraise the global situation and predict how that will change, as opposed to the reaction-based mechanics that dominate current raiding.
After all, if you prefer to cast a standard rotation or spell for 5-10 minutes without regard to your blue bar, you’re essentially just DPSing in the opposite direction, without the interactions, procs and target switches which make DPS interesting.

Coordination

Much has been written about the healer rotations in Vanilla, where one group of healers would heal until they ran low on mana, at which point a second group would take over while the former stood around regenerating mana. Few people would argue for a return to this situation, but designing encounters with more coordination in mind would be a good way of challenging healing teams.

How many times have you joined a PuG and been given little or no direction about healing assignments, only to see tanks fall over shortly afterwards? The trouble is, more often than not this actually tends to Just Work. Paladins will gravitate towards tanks, Resto Druids will tend to rejuv-blanket (if it’s appropriate), Resto Shaman will throw Chain Heals left, right and centre and so on.

A good example of a fight where coordination is more valuable is Sindragosa, especially in Phase 3. You will likely have 3 healers out of action at any one time, possibly more if the healers with Unchained Magic are also losing their stacks at the time. Awareness and coordination are vital for this to provide cover for the roles which are unavailable.
Another great example is Anub’Arak, where assigning healers to Penetrating Cold targets is vital, and cover needs to be assigned in case that assignment will not be covered due to death, lack of mana or any other reason.

Where coordination feels required in Wrath is where either a number of healers are removed from the equation, or where the damage profile is unusual enough that “standard” healing practices simply won’t cover it. I hope to see more of both types of encounters in the future, but there needs to be a way to reintroduce more coordination across the board.
Perhaps including larger spaces in which to fight could be another mechanism for coordinating healers, since it is much more difficult to cross-heal when sections of the raid are out of range. Recent painful experiences with Infest + Defile combinations on the Lich King have inspired this thought.

My suspicion is that restricting throughput availability alone, either through constrained mana or low output to damage ratios, will drive us further in the direction of reducing overhealing and getting healing efficiently to where it’s needed, which will in turn raise the level of coordination that feels natural in raids. But of course this remains to be seen.

Conclusions

On the whole I feel that healing in Wrath is still challenging, but isn’t as cerebral as it once was and could be again. Healing is less about decision-making, spell-selection and intelligent cross-healing and far more about maximising throughput on a general assignment. My admittedly rose-tinted memories of TBC have “spam-healing” as a rare exception rather than the rule. Triage has been marginalised in favour of “blanketing”.

For Cataclysm I would be happy to see a return to a slightly slower-paced approach to healing where using the right spell at the right time is the peak of performance, and strong teamwork trumps sniping and heal-stomping.

The lessons learned from Wrath should prevent the kind of massive surplus of throughput and regeneration we’re currently seeing in Icecrown from requiring such large amounts of boss damage, and the proposed change to health pools and mana costs should push healers back towards efficiency again.

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